For most aficionados of Chicago’s Second City, the hilarious 1998 mainstage revue “Paradigm Lost” was about as good as the much-loved old joint ever got.
Tina Fey stripped for Scott Adsit in his hotel room — and Adsit, lacking music, turned on CNN as the soundtrack. Rachel Dratch played a nun with a taste for dirty records. And Kevin Dorff, Jim Zulevic and the cast improvised an entire day of NPR broadcasting — replete with folksy commentary and ponderously arty interviews — based on a single audience suggestion.
You won’t see reference to it on the screen. But when Fey’s new prime-time comedy “30 Rock” premieres Wednesday on NBC (7 p.m; WMAQ-Ch. 5), you will be pretty much watching a season-long, televised reunion of the Second City cast of “Paradigm Lost.”
“I can’t believe I got away with it,” says Fey, over the phone from New York. “I somehow got all those people past all those random hurdles you have to get people past when you are doing television. And if Jim Zulevic had not passed away, he’d have been in there too.”
Aside from Zulevic, the only member of the “Paradigm” cast not in the show is Jenna Jolovitz (now an L.A.-based writer for Mad TV and other shows). But smart Chicago eyes will notice Wednesday that the character played by Jane Krakowski in “30 Rock” — a workplace sitcom based on the travails of working for a “Saturday Night Live”-type show — goes by the name of Jenna.
And there’s even another Second City performer in the “30 Rock” cast — Jack McBrayer, a critics’ favorite on the Second City e.t.c. stage between 1999 and 2002, and now a fake NBC page on “30 Rock.” McBrayer reckons he got the gig because he worked with Jeff Richmond on “Hamlet the Musical” (later “Melancholy Baby”). Richmond, who has a producing credit on “30 Rock,” is a former Second City director and Fey’s husband. “I think,” says McBrayer, “that Jeff probably put in a good word.”
Clearly, Second City alumni are benefiting from sea changes in the TV comedy business.
The success of shows such as “The Office,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Arrested Development” means there’s a new interest in shows that bust out of the usual sitcom mold. Suddenly, performers with improv and ensemble backgrounds aren’t too weird for TV.
“It used to be,” says Adsit, wryly, “that if you were an improviser you would only get asked to do prank shows. Fine. But that was not so satisfying at the end of a year. Now, we’re getting a lot more offers involving drama, comedy and even actual story.”
“An actor has to have improv experience on his resume now,” says Andrew Alexander, the owner of Second City. “Fifteen years ago, that wasn’t even a consideration. All of sudden, the kinds of things we do at Second City are very important to the people in television. It’s like there’s a whole new frame of mind. I’ve been blown away.”
And the other major change is that Second City (and Chicago’s IO) suddenly have alumni with enough clout to hire their friends. Second City always has generated comedic stars — John Belushi, Bill Murray and the like. But traditionally, those people have been performers invested in their own careers. Fey, who has her own development deal with NBC, is an entirely different, multivalent creature.
She’s a well-known performer from her stint on Weekend Update at “Saturday Night Live” and as writer/actor in the hit movie “Mean Girls,” but she’s also in the business of writing parts for other people and getting them produced. She worked intimately in Chicago with people such as Adsit and Dratch — it makes sense that she would want to hire them to play in a bigger sandbox. And unlike Harold Ramis and the other clout-heavy Second City greats from generations past, Fey still is only 36 — so her peers tend to be relatively young and hungry.
“Second City actors know their purpose within a larger story and ensemble,” Fey says. “I know people like Scott and Rachel so well. We did eight shows a week together in Chicago. So for example, I know that if you want a subtle physical bit that suddenly turns into a fall, Adsit is your man.”
In TV, of course, such skills aren’t usually enough. Somebody also has to know about you enough to sign off on you. And those somebodies aren’t hanging out on every Chicago street corner. In the past, an entree is what Chicago improvisers usually have lacked. Not so much anymore.
“I love,” says McBreyer, who has a vested interest, “that there are people who worked in Chicago reaching such positions of power.”
“I really feel that my generation at Second City has come of age now,” Fey says, modestly.
Why, you might wonder, did Fey not bypass the whole “Saturday Night Live” thing entirely and create a prime-time sitcom based on working at a Chicago sketch-comedy troupe that looks a lot like Second City?
“I did cycle through that idea at one point,” she says, lightly. “I wish I had set it in a theater in Chicago. Then I wouldn’t be having all the trouble I’m having.” That’s a reference to “30 Rock” butting up against Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” another self-referential NBC show set backstage at, well, a West Coast version of “Saturday Night Live.”
But Sorkin never worked at Second City, and “30 Rock” is entirely Fey’s sensibility and far more driven by the Second City aesthetic of the 1990s. The central character of Liz Lemon — a progressive head-writer type who has to fight off a network thug (played by Alec Baldwin) and hang on to the remnants of her show’s artistic credibility — clearly is based on Fey herself. Fey’s real first name is Elizabeth. And the character even moved to New York from Chicago to do the show — just as Fey left Second City to join “Saturday Night Live,” as did her old buddy Dratch.
In “30 Rock,” Dratch is expected to show up in a series of Second City sketch-like characters that will vary from week to week — everything from a maid to what Fey describes, cryptically, as “an imaginary blue creature.”
Fey says she’s aware of the dangers of too much inside pool — a charge leveled at the Sorkin show, which debuted earlier in the fall and is widely assumed to be at high risk of premature cancellation.
Not about sketch comedy
“We see our show as a workplace comedy that’s no more about TV sketch comedy than `The Office’ is about a paper company or `The Mary Tyler More Show’ was about the news business,” Fey says. “We’re not spending a lot of time on such super-high-stakes issues as “Did my sketch get on the show?”
It has occurred to Second City that it might make good business sense to develop TV shows under its own name — rather than cede all this suddenly fertile territory to alumni. Alexander, once the producer of the cult classic SCTV, says he’s been “re-energized” enough to open an office in L.A. that will specialize in developing TV concepts — from game shows to sitcoms.
Alexander says Second City expects to announce a development deal with a major studio soon. Second City Vice President Kelly Leonard says the new plan is to create TV projects for current Second City performers and more recent alumni.
Fey, clearly, doesn’t need anyone’s help. But she still remains notably tied to her roots in Chicago sketch-comedy.
“We are not going to ever show any actual sketches on our show-within-a-show.” Fey says.
Why not? After all, “Studio 60” does that a lot.
“I cannot bring myself to write a sketch and then pay a bunch of actors to sit there and laugh uproariously at it,” says Fey. ” I don’t know. It would be sort of unethical. It would go against the Chicago comedy gods or something.”